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Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War 

Everybody knows that Harper's Ferry was the scene of the 
John Brown raid in October, 1859, but there are things concerning 
the raid and Harper's Ferry and its surroundings which are not 
known to everybody. 

In Harper's Ferry there was an armory and arsenal belong- 
ing to the government. At the time of the raid large quantities 
of arms, 100,000 stand of rifles, had been made there and were 
stored in the arsenal for use when needed. The town was 
situated at the northeastern end of the great Valley of Virginia, 
at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. It is 
supposed that this valley was, in the early days of the world, a 
great lake 120 miles long and fourteen to twenty miles wide, 
and that the pressure of waters had broken through the moun- 
tain barriers at Harper's Ferry, draining the lake, and leaving a 
fertile valley, washed on the south side by the Shenandoah river 
and on the northeast by the Potomac. Whether or not the 
theory of the lake be true, certainly an alluvial deposit made 
the valley celebrated for its fertility, yielding to the farmer a rich 
return for his labor, and sustaining a large population, prosper- 
ous, comfortable, and happy. 

At Shepherdstown, twelve miles above Harper's Ferry, on the 
Potomac, the first boat was propelled by steam ; in 1 786 Rum- 
sey, the inventor, launched his boat on the waters of the Poto- 
mac and attained a speed of four or five miles an hour against 
the current. 

Rumsey lived alone in a log cabin on the banks of the river, 
was silent and meditative, and was generally thought by his 
neighbors to be wrong in his head. There was a path known as 

* Copyright, 1913, by the author. 

This is the first of a series of articles by the same author which will run 
through several numbers of the Review. — Editor. 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 429 

Rumsey's walk, along the cliff which overhangs the river, where 
Rumsey walked for hours daily, with his hands clasped behind 
his back, his head bent, evidently thinking out his invention. 
He was a very poor man, but at last, by the aid of a few friends, 
he launched his boat with the results above stated. Being told 
that England was the proper place for his efforts, by the further 
aid of friends, he went there, but poverty stuck to him and the 
boat he built at Liverpool was attached by creditors, and his ef- 
forts thus ended in failure. After many trials and sufferings 
some friends persuaded him to address a meeting of the citi- 
zens of Liverpool which would be called. So many were his 
disappointments that he did not suppose a dozen people would 
be present. What must have been his surprise when, on enter- 
ing the stage, he beheld a sea of faces awaiting his words. He 
arose to address his audience of interested and admiring people 
packed to the doors, but the task was beyond him, he fell in a 
fit of apoplexy, and died without uttering a word. 

The northeasternmost end of the Valley of Virginia, embrac- 
ing the counties of Jefferson, Clarke, Frederick, and Berkeley 
(Jefferson and Berkeley being now part of West Virginia) was 
settled by families mainly from Eastern Virginia, attracted by 
the fertility of the soil. These people brought with them the 
manners, habits, and social customs of old. Virginia, including 
the institution of slavery. Up to the time of which I am writing 
(1859), I knew of no more refined, cultivated, and hospitable 
people anywhere, and I have had some knowledge of the people 
of this and foreign lands. They brought with them the institu- 
tion of slavery, which, no mattar what its faults may have been, 
gave to the people a phase of social life, an immunity from the 
drudgery of existence, a leisure for the cultivation of mind and 
manners, very favorable to the making of gentlemen and gentle- 
women. People opposed to slavery did not believe this be- 
cause they were simply ignorant of the subject. They said 
slavery was brutal, therefore slave-owners were brutal. Bad 
men are brutal often, and some slave-owners were brutal ; but 
that they were brutal as a class, I deny. 

There was a great deal of affection between the whites and 
blacks which could have been only the result of kindness. 

430 The Sewanee Review 

Cruelty in our section was the exception and was universally- 
condemned. I remember one man in our neighborhood who 
was cruel to his slaves. He was not a bad looking man, was al- 
ways well dressed, and his manners were courtly in the extreme ; 
but I have seen that man walk the streets of Charlestown on 
court days, when the streets were crowded, without having a 
friend to speak to him. 

That kindness was the rule was fully proved during the civil 
war ; for when all men had gone to the front, and only the wom- 
en and negroes were left, the negroes were the only protectors 
and supporters the women had, and it is a historical fact that 
they performed their duties faithfully to the end, and not one 
single instance of outrage has been recorded. One of my slaves 
followed me for four years through the war, and, though given 
his freedom twice by our being captured, refused to be free 
and came back to me. And why should this not be so? I was 
the best friend he had in the world and he knew it. 

My father had a negro whom he trusted fully. There was a 
wedding in our neighborhood at Bedington, the home of the 
Bedingers, and my sister was bridesmaid to her cousin. In those 
days a house party was arranged in much more simple fashion 
than now. The houses had few rooms, but generally very large 
ones, and all the bridesmaids were quartered in one room. At 
this wedding there was a girl from Hoboken, a Miss Stevens, of 
the wealthy family of that name. 

When my sister returned home she did not unpack her trunk 
until late at night. My father was sitting up reading, when she 
entered the room in great distress, holding in her hands Miss 
Stevens's jewel-case, containing such jewels as we had never seen 
before. It was midnight and very cold, and a heavy snow was 
falling. My father sent for Frank, his trusted servant, and giving 
the case into his hands and telling him it was worth more than all 
he owned, ordered him to get a horse and ride to Bedington four 
miles distant and give the case into the hands of Miss Stevens, and 
no one else. Frank made the ride that stormy night and com- 
pelled the lady to come down in her night clothes and receive the 
jewel-case and write a letter of acknowledgement. Some care- 
less maid had packed Miss Steven's jewels in my sister's trunk. 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 431 

Before the railroad was built, Frank drove the wagon of flour 
to Baltimore, and, even after the railroad was built, still Frank 
went every year before Christmas to Baltimore with a load of 
flour, bringing back a load which made everybody, white and 
black, happy at that festival. He generally arrived after dark, 
and the big canopied wagon was driven to the front door and 
left there during the night, the six great smoking horses having 
been led away to the stable. After supper the wagon was un- 
loaded and the treasures revealed to us, the children. 

In those days the factor, or commission merchant, had duties 
which are unknown now. When he sold the flour he filled or- 
ders for every conceivable want of the family. I met an old fac- 
tor, after I came to Baltimore to live, who told me he had, with 
the assistance of his wife, bought and had made up the entire 
trousseau of many a bride, besides outfits for the entire families 
of his friends in the country. The reader can imagine what an 
event Frank's arrival with his wagon was to us. I have now a 
handsome service of china which was brought from Baltimore 
on Frank's wagon. 

One Christmas observance the negroes had which was very 
primitive and peculiar. When the hogs were killed in Decem- 
ber they preserved the bladders and, inflating them and tying 
the necks tightly to retain the air, they hung them up to dry, 
and on Christmas morning, while the stars were shining, they laid 
them on the frozen ground under the windows of the white 
folks and exploded them by stamping on them, thus awakening 
the family and saluting them on the arrival of the great festival. 

I remember part of one of the songs which the ox-driver sang 
in a slow monotone, sitting on the pole of the ox-cart, and keep- 
ing time to the slow, swinging steps of the oxen : — 

" See de bull go to school, hooie booie, hooie booie, 
See de bull go to school, hooie booie John. 
See de bull go to school, wid his book on his horn, 
And dat is de las' of old blind John. 

" See de cow build de mill, hooie booie, hooie booie, 
See de cow build de mill, hooie booie John. 
See de cow build de mill, water runmn' up de hill, 
An dat is de las' of old blind John." 

432 The Sewanee Review 

The verses were endless and seem to have been extemporized 
as he drove along. 

The kindly relations which existed between master and slave 
were quite natural. The negro in a state of slavery was docile, 
gentle, and easy-going. His freedom has given him the bump- 
tious arrogance with which the present generation is familiar. 
In slavery he was content as long as he did not suffer. Fire to 
warm him in winter and food to satisfy his hunger were the 
limits of his ambition. He loved to laugh and dance and sing 
songs. He loved approbation, and would do far more and bet- 
ter work for his master's smile than his frown. 

And the master's part was not difficult. He was kind because 
kindness paid him well. He took care of his slave because it 
was money in his pocket to do so, and money out of his pocket 
if he did not. Of course, there were other and higher motives 
in individuals, but we must look for a motive for the multitude. 

That the negro was better housed, better fed, better clothed, 
and better looked after in sickness than now, was simply be- 
cause the owner had money at stake. He had warm cloth- 
ing, plenty of wholesome food, and a good doctor when ill, be- 
cause of that money. In September the cloth and yarn for his 
winter clothing were brought home from the factory, and the 
work of making up began and was only finished at Christmas. 
In every household there was a woman who could cut out the 
garments, and all the younger girls had been taught how to sew 
and knit During the year, all the girls, in clean frocks, assem- 
bled in some room in the great house every morning, and the 
class of sewers and knitters was presided over by some spec- 
tacled old negro woman, whose word was law to them. The 
work of making up the clothing and knitting yarn socks went on 
under her supervision, and at Christmas every man and woman 
on the place appeared in new clothes and new shoes and 
warm woollen stockings. How many laboring people, white or 
black, have this provision now? And his other comforts. Every 
man had an overcoat every four years, and a flannel jacket, 
called by them (the negroes) a 'warmus', to wear under his 
waistcoat in cold weather. His tobacco was issued to him once 
a week, and when a boy I loved to be the distributer. Some- 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 433 

times it was bought in kegs of about 100 pounds, and was 
called 'black-strap', and one strap, sometimes two, was the ra- 
tion. Some of them chewed it and some of them smoked it in 
their corncob pipes. This was before the days of fertilizers, 
when tobacco was raised from the virgin soil. Every year a 
farmer would clear a small patch of ground, sufficient for the 
wants of his farm, and plant it in tobacco. The fragrance of the 
negro's corncob pipe was notorious, and was due to the fact 
that no fertilizer had been used in growing his tobacco. 

After the harvest was ended each hand was paid one day's 
wages in gold and silver; the leading cradler got $5.00, the other 
cradlers $2. 50, and the others the usual wages, down to the little 
boy who carried the sheaves. If the neighbors had not finished 
their harvest the force was allowed to go and help them out, re- 
ceiving for themselves the usual wages. 

In all the fields of corn the outside rows were planted in 
broom-corn for the negroes' use, and they spent the long win- 
ter evenings in making brooms, baskets, hampers, and split- 
bottom chairs, all of which found a ready sale in the country 
stores. The chairs were of all sizes, from the large porch chairs 
down to low sewing chairs and chairs for children. They man- 
aged to make them very comfortable, and they were substantial 
and lasted a lifetime. There was often on the farm an old 
rheumatic negro who had learned to make shoes, and he made 
boots to the knee and nailed in the soles for all the men, and 
shoes for all the women and children, the master paying him 
for his work a moderate sum. 

Each man on the place was allotted a piece of ground which 
he planted in anything he liked, generally in melons, and the 
negroes' watermelons were always the best the farm produced. 
The thrifty negro was never without money in his pocket, and 
some have even been known to have money enough to buy 
their own freedom, or that of a wife or child who was in danger 
of being sold for the debts of their owner. In hot weather a 
ration of whisky steeped in tansy, and in malarial seasons a gill 
of whisky with five grains of quinine was issued to each man 
every morning before he went to his work. It is all over now, 
and I for one am glad of it ; but the fact remains that the slave 

434 The Sewanee Review 

did his work, and was moderately comfortable and happy, and 
the master took care of him. In those days the kitchen was 
generally detached or only connected with the house by a cov- 
ered way. The meals were brought in by detachments and put 
down in front of the fire, inside the brass fender. When all was 
ready the meal was announced, the family took their seats, and 
the viands were served hot from the fire. There was also a plate 
warmer which stood on the hearth in front of the dining-room 
fire. The advantage of these arrangements was twofold, — you 
got a hot meal on a hot plate and you knew what your dinner 
was to be without a menu card. One evening my father (who 
had come in after a cold day on horseback) was sitting in front 
of the dining-room fire waiting for his supper, when Tom, the 
waiter, came in and put down on the hearth two plates of beaten 
biscuits. In leaning over to do this, several tell-tale biscuits 
dropped from the unbuttoned breast of his coat. Tom stood 
still, utterly dumfounded, but my father said promptly, "Tom, 
Tom, you old rascal, you are simply raining biscuits this even- 
ing. Pick 'em up, Tom, pick 'em up and put 'em in your 
pocket. It won't do to waste good biscuits, Tom", — and poor 
Tom picked up the biscuits and put them in his pocket and 
retired in great confusion and in sorrow, too, for he was blubber- 
ing like a great baby. 

I remember well my mother's attitude toward our slaves. 
She had a school where all the young ones were taught (con- 
trary to law). She taught them herself, and her Sunday 
school was always full. All our young slaves could read and 
some of them could write. My old Mammy always wrote to 
my mother when she was away from home. When we (the 
children) gathered around the table to study our lessons at night, 
she always took her place at the table with pen, ink, and paper. 
"Now, children," she would say, "I am going to write to your 
ma, and I don't want to give a bad account of any of you." I 
can remember the times I laid my weary head in Mammy's lap 
and said my sleepy prayers, and I remember her sitting nodding 
by my bedside until I should fall asleep. And I remember 
Mammy's funeral, for I was almost a man then. We were living 
in Charlestown, and Mammy was old and lived in a cabin at the 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 435 

bottom of the garden walk and never came to the house. On 
good days she sat in her door in the sun with her Bible on her 
knees. My mother was old and feeble, but on good days she 
would walk down to the cabin, while in bad weather she would go 
on the back porch and look down the walk until the two saw 
each other, and then they would wave their hands at each other. 

When Mammy died, my father determined to bury her in the 
Episcopal graveyard at Zion Church. Although a vestryman, 
he could not get permission, but the procession moved up the 
back street, about half a mile in the August sun, the coffin, car- 
ried by eight strong men, my father with his hat off, walking im- 
mediately behind it. When we came to the gates they were 
locked, but after a little delay they were opened somehow, and 
Mammy, the only negro, lies buried in Zion churchyard with the 
white folks, and some day she will rise as white as any there. 

The most remarkable feature of the situation in our section 
was that refinement and even elegance could exist on such 
very small means. A man with a small farm (say 300 acres), 
worth about $12,000, and a few slaves was really a prince, — 
a prince of the kind that no millionaire of the present day can 
even emulate. His butler, his coachman, his cook, were all his 
property. They could not strike for higher wages, they could 
not give notice of leaving. They were there and there to stay. 
Knowing this, the head of the house was free from some of the 
carking cares which beset the most favored people of the present 
age. He had leisure to think, to read, to cultivate his mind 
and manners, and to indulge himself in social pleasure. He was 
a better-educated man, a better-read man in current and an- 
cient literature, and he was a better-mannered man than the 
man of the present age ; freed from little worries, his temper 
was better, his heart was softer, and his disposition more sunny 
and genial. Social intercourse, therefore, was on a plane which 
is now unknown. There was little attempt at grandeur or ex- 
travagant display ; a beautiful simplicity pervaded life and gave 
it its greatest charm. 

Of course there were degrees of wealth : the man with thou- 
sands of acres and hundreds of slaves, the man with a few hun- 
dred acres and a few slaves ; but the latter was all the same a 

436 The Sewanee Review 

prince and was so recognized by the former. The man with 
the smaller fortune was just as independent as the other, and in 
some respects was in a rather more favored position. His 
cares were fewer, certainly, and his time was more his own, 
while his social position was as good as anybody's. He was re- 
ceived in all social functions, his financial status not being con- 
sidered in the least. His intellectual and educational advan- 
tages were of great importance and his manners also. As a con- 
sequence, he was careful to cultivate these, and was generally 
entertaining and agreeable. 

It is well known that the man I am describing was well 
posted in political and other matters of his own and antecedent 
epochs. I have know men of this stamp who knew well their 
Homer and their Thucydides, their Bacon and their Shakespeare, 
and were ready and apt in quotations, and at the same time 
were not lifted above current events, but rather gave them the 
preference in conversation, using their knowledge of the past in 
illustration of events of the present. Among such people social 
events were very different from those of the present day. A 
friend of mine told me of a dinner in New York the other day 
at which twenty-five hundred millions of dollars were present. 
He told me nothing of the people, what they said or what they 
did, he only told me in bated breath of the money. Such a 
dinner in olden times was of course unknown, and in compar- 
ing them, words cannot express my preference for the old. I 
can remember some of those dinners when the ladies had re- 
tired, and the decanters of old Madeira went circling round 
over the polished mahogany, and am filled with regret that 
those days have passed away forever. 

In reading Sir Ronald Gower's book descriptive of the man- 
ner of living in England, especially at the court of Queen Vic- 
toria, where he was an intimate of the royal family, I was struck 
with the similarity to life in Virginia in the olden time. It was 
before the days of course-dinners, — a Russian innovation I be- 
lieve, — and the queen would ask a guest to carve the pair of 
fowls in front of him, the cloth was removed, and the decanters 
of wine put on in coasters, and in many other respects the 
customs were indentical in the two countries. In the country 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 437 

life in England to-day, many of the custom of the olden times 
are kept up, while in this country they are only a memory. 

In our neighborhood, there was a debating society which met 
at the different farm houses in winter every Saturday night, the 
host at each meeting being ex-officio chairman. The neighbor- 
hood was composed of people of much more cultivation than will 
be found in a farming country now, and the debate was of un- 
usual excellence, although there were the usual ridiculous fail- 
ures. The farmers were not the only people who lived in the 
country. In our neighborhood old lawyers who had won their 
spurs, and some doctors, lived on farms and went every day to 
offices in town. There were two judges and four members or 
ex-members of Congress, two novelists, and two poets of some 
ability, and also two artists, — notably David Strother (afterwards 
General Strother of the Federal Army), who, in the late forties 
and early fifties, under the nom deplume of "Porte Crayon", 
wrote for Harper's Magazine and illustrated his writings ; Alex- 
ander R. Botiler, who was in Congress at one time and was an 
orator as well as a caricaturist, whose efforts, we thought, would 
compare favorably with those of Leach and Du Maurier and 
Henry Bedinger, orator, poet, and wit, who during his short life 
represented his district in Congress, and had been also minister 
to Denmark and a friend and favorite of the king. 

And the parson (the rector of our church) lived on a farm and 
reared a family of twelve children, among them eight of the wild- 
est boys in the county. While some few of the best people lived 
in the town, yet the town was a place to go for shopping and 
business ; the country was the place to live. 

One Saturday, the debate was at our house, and I remember 
it well, though only eight years old, from an amusing incident. 
We had staying with us a cousin who had lately taken a wife 
and had brought her to make our acquaintance. During the 
day, he told my father he thought he would like to speak on 
the question for the evening. He was posted on it and had 
thought much upon the subject. My father told him that after 
the regular debate was over, anyone could speak, and if he arose 
he would recognize him. When the regular debaters had fin- 
ished their very able efforts, my cousin George sprang to his 

438 The Sewanee Review 

feet. He was usually a mild, amiable sort of young man, 
but now he looked quiet fierce and determined, and, stretch- 
ing out his right arm, began: "Mr. President, it strikes me," — 
but somehow he stuck there. My father bowed and smiled en- 
couragingly, and he began again. "Mr. President, it strikes 
me," — and still the words did not come. And yet a third time 
he took on an attitude of defiance, and, stretching out his right 
arm, said, "Mr. President, it strikes me — ." Now his little wife 
was sitting over in the corner behind some other ladies, and 
when he came out for the third time with his " Mr. President, it 
strikes me, — " she leaned forward and said very quietly, "dumb, 
George." Instantly he turned and looked at her, his fierce face 
breaking into a smile, as he said, "My dear, you are quite right, 
it strikes me dumb," — and down he sat; and this was my cousin 
George's speech. I have often thought I inherited some of my 
cousin George's talent for public speaking, for whenever I have 
been called upon, no matter how full I thought I was of ideas 
upon the subject, — a very ocean of impending eloquence, — a 
rapidly receding wave swept all away, leaving me (intellectu- 
ally) a stranded wreck, and as dumb as my poor cousin. 

On the evenings of debate, the company always adjourned to 
the dining-room, where a supper of cold turkey, ham, etc., was 
washed down with good old Madeira. 

And the women, — the matrons and the maids of that time, — 
their soft voices and their gentle ways! They did not belong to 
women's clubs, they did not ride bicycles and horses astride, 
and they did not drive automobiles or lecture on platforms. 
They were brought up without coming in contact with the rude 
outer world ; they were generally educated at home by govern- 
esses. Every girl had her maid, who waited on her, and she 
was a stranger to drudgery. One would suppose from this that 
they would be useless toys as wives, and poor companions for 
educated and stirring men, but the supposition would be wrong. 

I have seen a girl of thirteen take the head of her father's 
table, in her mother's absence, and play hostess in such a simple 
and sweet fashion as would charm her father's guests. She had 
watched her mother in these trying ordeals, and had insensibly 
learned her lesson, and when it came her turn to preside at 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 439 

her husband's table and take upon herself the cares of a family, 
she had little to learn! And when the great Civil War came, 
with what splendid heroism she stood at her post at home, and 
sent her husband and her sons to battle! And when the struggle 
was ended, with what uncomplaining cheerfulness she undertook 
the drudgeries of her altered circumstances! These are not 
merely the tales of a fond old man, revelling in the visions of his 
youth ; they are parts of the immortal history of the Southland. 
Upon these people living peacefully and happily in that beau- 
tiful valley, the Brown Raid came in October, 1859, as a clap 
of thunder from a clear sky. 

The John Brown Raid 

There is a turnpike road from Harper's Ferry southwestward 
through Charlestown eight miles, thence twelve miles to Berry- 
ville, and thence ten miles to Winchester. It is a macadamized 
road, and was, during the war, the main road for both armies 
in their many marches up and down the Valley of Virginia. 
At the time of the Raid I was living on a farm six miles south- 
west from Charlestown, and therefore fourteen miles from 
Harper's Ferry, on this turnpike road. 

On the Monday morning of the 20th of October, 1859, I was 
overlooking the work of the men, who were cutting off corn in a 
field near Ripon, our post office station. I noticed that the men 
often turned their eyes on me as I followed behind them in their 
work, — a thing I had never observed in them before. Their 
glances were stolen glances, and made me feel uncomfortable 
and doubtful, — an entirely new sensation in my experience as 
a slave owner. The post office, where the stage to Berryville 
stopped to deliver the mail, was in sight. A negro boy passed 
up the path leading across the field to the post office at Ripon 
about two o'clock. It was his daily task to go for the mail at 
this hour. He soon returned, swinging the empty mail bag and 
reported, "there is no mail." Accustomed to having the daily 
paper at least, I walked immediately to Ripon and there heard 
the news of the Raid, much exaggerated, of course, but still 
presenting the main facts. 

Harper's Ferry had been invaded the night before (Sunday 

440 The Sewanee Review 

night) by a band of armed man, who had arrested some citizens, 
and killed several, and now held possession of the town and of 
all the trains on the B. & O. Railroad. Among the dead were 
my neighbor, George W. Turner (a retired army officer), F. 
Breakham (the agent of the railroad), and Heyward, a negro 
porter at the railway station. How many men composed the 
party of raiders was not known. They had crossed the river from 
the Maryland side about nine o'clock Sunday night. Sentinels 
were posted at the street corners, and all citizens on the street 
were told to go home and remain in their houses. The churches 
let out their congregations at this hour, and for a time the streets 
were filled with people, but these soon disappeared under the 
advice of the raiders ; a few who refused were arrested. The 
men wore short cloaks or blankets, under which they concealed 
the short Sharp's rifles with which they were armed. 

During the night, a party under Brown in person made a 
raid into the country and arrested Lewis W. Washington and 
John H. Allstandt and brought them to Harper's Ferry. Brown 
also armed himself with the sword of General Washington and 
carried away other relics of the "father of his country." But the 
reign of John Brown's party was of short duration. The wires 
were busy during the night, and in the morning Harper's Ferry 
was invested by military companies from Charlestown, Win- 
chester, Shepherdstown, Martinsburg, and Frederick, and Brown 
was soon forced to take refuge in the engine house in the U. S. 
armory yard, taking his prisoners as hostages with him. 

Everybody seemed to have heard of these things except me, 
who had remained at home all that Monday and had seen no- 
body and heard nothing. 

I returned home, passing through the field where my men 
were at work, and observed that their covert glances were 
more frequent and more eager, and I now knew well the cause. 
It was a well-known fact that the negroes had some means of 
getting news which white people did not have, and I was sure 
my men knew as much about the Raid and more, probably, than 
I did. In fact it was ascertained afterwards that John Brown's 
emissaries in the shape of peddlers, book agents, etc., etc., had 
been among the negroes for a year past, and had acquainted 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 441 

them with his plan, even the day he would take Harper's Ferry. 
Brown told me in the jail at Charlestown that he looked for at 
least five hundred slaves to join him at Harper's Ferry, that his 
army would be five thousand in a few days, and that he would 
have one hundred thousand in a month, all armed with Harper's 
Ferry rifles he had captured, and that then five million slaves 
being in revolt, the whites would be at their mercy. I saw him 
several times in the jail, and he talked quite freely to me and 
Colonel Lawson Botts, my brother-in-law, who was assigned by 
the judge for the defence. 

Leaving the field, I went to the house and ordered my saddle 
horse and my wife's carriage. I told my wife nothing of the 
Raid, but asked her if she did not wish to take the children to 
her mother's for the night, as I would be absent on business. 
She was always glad to do this, and started as soon as she could 
get ready. As soon she was out of sight, I took my rifle and 
mounted my horse and started for Harper's Ferry. 

Within the first mile, I met an old darky who said, " Marster, 
I see you is off for de war ; Marse John done put on his war 
clothes and he's gone." Marse John was a militia colonel and 
I found enough colonels and generals at Harper's Ferry to 
capture Brown's party without their commands. 

Arriving at Harper's Ferry about nine at night, I found every- 
thing quiet, the streets filled with soldiers, but no fighting. 
John Brown was said to be cooped up in the engine house, and 
pickets were posted to prevent approach to that centre, but no 
one could tell me what was going to be done. Learning, how- 
ever, that Col. Robert E. Lee had arrived and was in command, 
I went at once to his quarters. I had known Colonel Lee, for 
when a boy I was at school with Custis Lee, his son ; and sending 
in my name, was admitted. The room was filled with militia and 
a council of war was being held. Colonel Lee asked their advice, 
from the junior to the senior officer, but no one seemed to know 
what to do. They had driven Brown into the engine house, 
where he was protected by strong brick walls with an occasional 
brick knocked out as a "port hole," and none of them knew 
how to get him out. They could batter down the walls with 
cannon, but in doing so would sacrifice Brown's prisoners. 

442 The Sewanee Review 

Finally Colonel Lee said, "Gentlemen, I will now bid you good- 
night; to-morrow morning at eight o'clock I will storm the 
engine house with a detachment of marines under Lieut. Israel 
Green." Going out into the street, I met a few of my old friends 
who had been cadets with me, and let them into the secret. 
We went to the hotel on the railroad, which faced the engine 
house, and took a room overlooking the scene of the impending 
conflict. The windows of the room opened on the roof of a 
porch facing the engine house and not more than twenty yards 
distant, and we had a perfect view of the whole performance. 

The next morning, at a few minutes before eight o'clock, 
Colonel Lee appeared in the street below, and we immediately 
passed through the windows onto the porch roof. We were in 
full view, and if Brown had not had his hands so full, his men 
could have quickly routed us. Colonel Lee was dressed very 
quietly : felt hat with cord and tassel, a short blue cape braided 
in black, and carried under his arm his sword in its scabbard, 
the whole encased in a buckskin cover. He walked slowly to- 
wards the engine house and took his stand behind one of the 
stone pillars of the gateway of the armory yard, and I thought 
then, as I have often thought since, when following him through 
a four-years' war, that certainly there could be no finer type of 
soldier than he. 

Capt. J. E. B. Stuart now approached the engine house 
bearing a flag of truce, a white handkerchief on the point of his 
drawn sword. After a short colloquy with Brown through the 
doors, he retired and dropped his white flag as a signal for 

Very soon a squad of marines advanced from the railroad at 
double quick, and tried to batter down the doors of the engine 
house with sledge hammers, but Brown had stayed the doors 
with chains across them and had pushed up the fire engine 
against them, and the sledge hammers merely split the planks 
without breaking down the doors. The sledge-hammer squad 
retired, and soon twenty marines, carrying a long ladder on their 
shoulders, ran rapidly towards the doors, using the ladder as a 
battering ram, and after two attempts, the doors gave way, the 
ladder crashing through them and reamining in a slanting po- 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 443 

sition, about ten feet of the forward end remaining inside and 
resting on the engine, the near end resting on the ground, 
offering easy access to the engine house. Immediately an officer 
(some say Israel Green, some Jeb Stuart, but both of them were 
on the ladder at the same time) sprang upon the ladder, followed 
by the marines (one of whom was shot as he entered and died), 
and in a few minutes Brown and his party were prisoners. 
But Brown and his party had made a desperate fight, had fired 
through the port holes and through the doors incessantly, and 
though two of them were lying dead in the engine house, the 
living were perfectly cool and undaunted to the end. Colonel 
Washington emerged from his prison-house looking as well 
dressed as usual, and seemed as cool as if nothing had happened. 
He said he would like some breakfast. The other prisoners were 
uninjured, having only suffered the discomfort of a day and a 
night in the engine house. Brown had a scalp wound at the hands 
of Captain Stuart, I believe ; two of Brown's men were lying dead 
in the engine house ; one was lying dead on a rock in the middle 
of the Potomac ; one named Stephens was severely wounded, 
and the rest (excepting a man named Cook, who escaped early 
in the morning before Brown was driven into the engine house, 
but was subsequently captured in Pennsylvania and brought 
back to the Charlestown jail) were all taken to Charlestown and 
lodged in jail. 

The scene now changes to Charlestown, where the prisoners 
were already lodged in jail. 

Charlestown, the county-seat of Jefferson County, was founded 
in 1 786 and named after Colonel Charles Washington, a brother 
of General George Washington. He owned nearly all the land 
in the vicinity, and eighty acres were laid out in lots and streets 
as Charles Town. The original trustees were John Augustine 
Washington, William Drake, Robert Rutherford (great grand- 
father of the writer), James Crane, Cato Moore, Magness Tate, 
Benjamin Rankin, Thornton Washington, William Little, Alex- 
ander White, and Richard Ranson. The people of the county 
bore such names as the Washingtons (several families), the Lees, 
Davenports, Danridges, Pendletons, Turners, Lewises, Whitings, 
and Lowndes ; while in Clarke, the adjoining county, were the 

444 The Sewanee Review 

Randolphs, the Pages, the Meads, the Carters, the Nelsons, 
Lewises, etc., etc., — old Virginia names and well known in her 
history. General hospitality was the rule among all the people, 
and an opportunity was now presented to them for a boundless 
exercise of this trait. 

Almost every organized and armed body of men in the State 
was present, and Charlestown became a military camp. Bat- 
teries of artillery were stationed on the outskirts. Cavalrymen 
patrolled the whole county and especially the northern border, 
thousands of infantry were camped in and around the town, and 
the sleepy little village awoke to the sights and sounds of war. 

Rumors were afloat of a rising of John Brown's friends in the 
North, that they were approaching the town in large bodies 
with the intention of rescuing him, and apprehension and excite- 
ment pervaded the whole community. Cavalry scouts increased 
their activity and vigilance ; artillery was so placed as to sweep 
by its fire all the approaches, the infantry was often kept under 
arms all night. But nothing came of the rumors ; excitement died 
down gradually, and confidence was again restored. 

The militia was composed of the flower of Virginia families 
and were received and entertained in old Virginia fashion. 
Among the young the tragic side of the Raid was soon forgotten 
in a round of gaiety very unusual and very exciting. All houses 
in the town and county were thrown open to the soldiers, and 
dinners, suppers, balls and parties seemed to be the main occu- 
pation of everybody. It was a repetition of Brussels before 
Waterloo, when — 

" Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again, 
And all went merry as a marriage-bell." 

All this, however, was among the young. Old men looked 
grave and shook their heads, and middle-aged faces had traces 
of care and thought. Military companies were forming every- 
where. They were being uniformed, armed, and drilled. The 
Second Virginia Infantry was formed at this time, composed of 
companies from Charlestown, Shepherdstown, Martinsburg, 
Berryville, and Harper's Ferry. The field officers and some of 
the captains of companies were old cadet graduates of the Vir- 
ginia Military Institute, and the writer was Adjutant. The 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 445 

same thing was going on in a less degree all over the State, and 
preparations for war were being made, although in a superficial 
and utterly inadequate way. The truth is, people feared war but 
did not believe in it, and consequently when war did come, were 
entirely unprepared for it. 

In the meantime, John Brown's men were recovering from 
their wounds and were speedily brought to trial. Able de- 
fenders did all they could for them before the juries, — the late 
Senator Vorhees of Indiana being of Brown's counsel, but they 
were all found guilty, condemned, and hanged. 

After sixty days of excitement such as they had never before 
experienced, the people went back to their farms and their 
merchandise and their apparently quiet life, but underneath 
there was an uncertainty and dread of the future which 
thinking people could not rid themselves of, and which was to 
be more than realized in one short year. 

How many men Brown had with him in the Raid, I do not 
now remember, but I am sure there were not over nineteen in 
all. That he should have attempted so much with so small a 
force would argue that he was not of sound mind, but it seems 
he had worked out his proposition quite thoroughly in his own 
head, and on plausible if not practical lines. His theory was 
that the negroes in bondage were all thirsting for freedom and 
would gladly and instantly embrace the first opportunity which 
was presented them. He neglected to estimate the true char- 
acter of the negro and the real conditions of his bondage. 
He did not know that while the negro was anxious to be 
free, yet from long dependence upon others, was not likely 
to act promptly and independently. He forgot that the ne- 
groes, in that section at least, were comfortable and happy, 
that there was such a thing as love between master and 
slave, that many negroes loved their homes and were proud 
of the families who owned them. As a consequence, not 
one slave joined him at Harper's Ferry, although they had 
ample notice of his coming. The negro Heyward refused 
positively to join him and was shot dead in consequence. 
This was a fatal error, for if his success had even been partial 
such an act would have prevented the slaves from joining him. 

446 The Sewanee Review 

They would have regarded him as a cruel tyrant and not as a 
friend and deliverer. 

For a year before the Raid, Brown and his men had been 
living on a mountain farm on the Maryland side of the Potomac, 
about a mile from Harper's Ferry. There he formed his plans 
and sent his emissaries through the South. Being so near, he 
acquainted himself with all the conditions at Harper's Ferry, 
the number and quality of the arms stored in the arsenal, etc., 
etc. There, on the farm, he made thousands of pikes with 
which to arm the ignorant slaves until he could teach them the 
use of firearms, and from there, on the day appointed, he 
marched at night into Harper's Ferry and took possession. The 
only thing wanting to what he would have esteemed success, 
was the rising of the slaves and flocking to his standard. He 
forgot that if even five hundred slaves had joined him at 
Harper's Ferry on the Sunday night, they would all have fallen 
victims to the troops which, armed, drilled, and disciplined, 
rushed by trains to Harper's Ferry on Monday morning. He 
forgot that, though he might have coped for awhile with the 
volunteer troops, the power of the U. S. Government and its 
army would have been on him in a day or two. His success 
in sparsely settled Kansas had turned his head, and he failed 
to estimate properly new conditions which awaited him in his 
venture in the East ; and while the North must regard him as a 
philanthropist who gave his life for an idea, the South must re- 
gard him as a crazed and reckless freebooter. Even the poor 
ignorant slaves showed a better judgment of the situation than 
Brown. When the armies of the North came down in countless 
legions, the negro saw his opportunity and embraced it. When 
Brown came with his nineteen, they had sense enough to see 
the utter folly of his attempt and turned their backs upon him 
to a man. 

When I got home after the war there was one able-bodied 
negro on the farm who had never left it. I asked him why he 
had not gone with the others, and he said, "I thought that if I 
was to be a slave I would rather be a slave here than anywhere 
else ; and if I was to be free, I would rather be free here than 
anywhere else. I have a comfortable home, plenty to eat and 

Reminiscences of Civil War by Confederate Staff Officer 447 

to wear, and am cared for when I am sick, and I don't see that 
any of those who went away have anything more, and some of 
them have much less." These are sound views and argue for 
the negro more sense than Brown gave him credit for. That 
negro is living in his cabin on that farm to this day. 

In all that I have said upon the subject of slavery, it must 
not be understood that I have sought to justify or defend it. 
When I was a boy twelve years old, I made up my mind that 
slavery was wrong and I have never changed it. When I be- 
came a man, I found many who agreed with me and we were 
only waiting for some able mind to devise a scheme of emanci- 
pation. The negro was a knotty problem then and will remain 
a knotty problem for ages to come. 

A. R. H. Ranson. 
Catonsville, Maryland.